All Along the Watchtower
I'm late to meet Dorian Clair at his antique clock repair shop in Noe Valley. This isn’t entirely unexpected. My internal timekeeper is usually a few minutes slower than standard time. But Dorian doesn't seem to mind. In fact, when I arrive at 8:34 on a recent Friday morning, I see that the sign on the door with his hours posted is three paragraphs long, giving a broad range of times when the shop might be open or closed. This isn't a guy who has a rigid sense of time.
I squint through the front window to see Dorian emerge from stairs at the back of the shop. He's 64 and relatively thin, with short white hair, big glasses, and a moustache reminiscent of Wilford Brimley. Inside his shop we exchange small talk for a few minutes. And then, standing amidst 200 to 300 clocks, I apologize for being late. It's not a problem, Dorian assures me, but he does need to meet a friend for lunch around 11:30. I look up at the nearest clock. Its hands read 9:27. I look to another one that's at 5:07. Finally, I pull out my iPhone and see that it's not even 9:00 yet. We still have plenty of time.
Dorian repairs antique clocks at his shop, but he also tends many of the city's clock towers, including the iconic one at the Ferry Building. Three times a year, he cares for the pendulum clock at the UCSF Medical Center on Parnassus. And he built the clock that's in the Clocktower Lofts building near the Bay Bridge. I'm interested in visiting these, and I tell him so. Dorian hedges for unspoken reasons. But I'm a motivated journalist, confident that I'll climb at least one tower before my visit’s over.
To be clear, there are a few San Francisco clocks that Dorian doesn't maintain. Notably, he doesn't look after the clock at Ghirardelli Square, which uses a pendulum. According to Dorian, this and the Medical Center clock are the only two pendulum tower clocks in the city. He has set the Ghirardelli clock a few times in the past but no one maintains it. Access to it is through what is now a time-share condominium, Dorian explains to me, and the owners have other priorities.
The clocks Dorian deals with are definitely classical in nature. They keep time with gears and pendulums, electric motors, and pieces of quartz. They are antiques from eBay and flea markets, and they are family heirlooms. The oldest clock in Dorian's shop was built in France around 1710. It was made 400 years after the first mechanical clocks, which kept time to about 15 minutes a day. It appeared in Europe about half a century after the first pendulum clocks – which lost less than a minute a day – came onto the scene.
The old French clock significantly predates the first quartz oscillator, which arrived in the 1920s. Quartz accuracy beats that of a pendulum and is much cheaper than an atomic clock, which keeps time by tracking the energetic fluctuations of atoms. Atomic clocks are used in satellites and cellular networks and are the reason we have GPS and mobile phones. Quartz is used in most watches and wall clocks today.
The machines in Dorian’s shop captivate me. Because I write about technology in Silicon Valley, I often spend time learning about microchips and software, the invisible inventions that make the modern world work. But Dorian’s days are occupied with technology that is visible, touchable, and knowable. He sees how gears move and uses his hands to fix them. I admire this.
In Dorian's shop, I sit down in a chair next to his workbench and reiterate my interest in touring the clock towers. But Dorian seems more intent on filling me in on their background. And so we look through pictures he's taken and I listen to his stories as Mike, the black, long-haired cat who lives in the shop, stands on his haunches and puts his oversized paws on my knees.
Dorian tells me that in the 1930s the Schmidt Lithography Company clock tower on Second Street was going to be demolished to make way for the Bay Bridge viaduct. In the end, though, the highway was built around the building, and the tower was spared. Today the building houses the Clocktower Lofts.
At one point someone replaced the clock's motor with one from a Teletype machine, Dorian tells me. This was a bad idea: The small motor simply couldn't handle the load of four 12-foot dials and eventually burned out. So in 2002, Dorian spent two months building a new clock for the tower. It doesn't require much maintenance, he says, and it keeps pretty good time. I ask him if he can show me his handiwork, but he tells me access is limited because the only way to the clock is through a privately owned apartment. Besides, it just looks like a metal box, he says.
Tinkering and building things have always come naturally to Dorian. When he was young, he would take apart radios, clocks, and record players. The local trashman would leave discarded mechanical objects at his front door as presents. After high school, Dorian joined the navy and spent time on a nuclear submarine. His job was to chart trajectories of both the sub and the nuclear missiles.
His navy experience helped him get a job at Spectra-Physics where he built spectrometers for scientific labs. After a few years, a colleague suggested that Dorian work for himself, so he turned his hobby of clock fixing into a livelihood by opening a repair shop in Santa Cruz. He moved his shop around for a few years, eventually settling 22 years ago in his current location on Sanchez Street.
His self-education taught him that the best way to fix a clock is often the simplest way, even if it takes time. This outlook guides his business principles: He won’t fix clocks that aren’t worth the time or money, that are of poor craftsmanship to begin with, or have been irreparably damaged by previous repairs. Some customers don’t like this, but it’s a policy of his. Still, he says business is good.
Dorian shows me an old photograph, taken after the 1906 earthquake, of the Ferry Building, silhouetted against the sky while the city smokes and smolders around it. The Ferry Building clock started ticking in 1898, and at the time it used a pendulum. But after the earthquake, the tower became unstable, perturbing the pendulum's rhythm and making the clock unreliable. In 1918, the pendulum was removed and replaced with an electric motor. The original pendulum is still in the tower and could be hooked up at any time if the building owners wanted, Dorian says. Can I see it? I ask.
He calls the building manager on my behalf, but is told that the 17-story staircase is too dangerous for anyone other than himself and the maintenance workers to climb. (The clock is on the ninth floor.) It's a liability issue, the man on the phone says. Later, I call the Ferry Building public relations officers myself and assure them that I will sign any waiver they need. I just want to go to the top of the clock tower, look around, and come down. I'm not going to throw a party. I'm not going to sue. But my access is unequivocally denied.
The Medical Center clock tower is my last hope for a tour. This clock uses a pendulum, and is therefore somewhat persnickety. The pendulum rod is made of wood and its bob is made of iron. These materials expand and contract with changes in the temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. When the pendulum lengthens or shrinks, the time it takes for it to swing back and forth changes.
In addition to adjusting the weight of the pendulum, Dorian must make sure the gears don't have so much grease that they'll jam, and they can't be too dry because then they'll rust. It's a balancing act, he says. Can I see the Medical Center clock in action? I ask. Sure, Dorian says, it's in a glass case, visible to anyone standing at street level. It wasn't exactly what I had hoped for, but soon I'm standing with Dorian at the base of the Medical Center clock tower, watching the pendulum swing and listening to him describe how it works. It’s not strike three, but it’s certainly not the home run I envisioned.
The first thing you notice about the clock is the collection of gears housed in a decorative green metal frame. Then you see the pendulum, a green cylinder hanging from a rod. While the pendulum is the heart of the beast, the real driving force of any pendulum clock is gravity.
If you look to the right and up a bit, you see a cylindrical weight that Dorian says is about 65 pounds. When the clock is wound (which should happen every week, but often doesn’t), the weight is raised multiple stories above the street. As gravity pulls the weight down, a connecting cable is wound around a drum that turns a large gear that turns a smaller gear that turns an even smaller gear, and so on. Finally, one of the gears forces a lever to push the pendulum.
The pendulum essentially dispels the weight’s gravitational energy, letting it lower slowly. This is how we get the ticktock of a clock. More gears turn a metal tube that extends up to the clock, rotating gears behind its face – the ones that control the hour and minute hands. This clock doesn't strike on the hour, Dorian explains, because there's no neighborhood consensus on how quiet or loud the chimes should be.
From our angle, it's difficult to read the time at the top of the tower. Dorian checks his watch, a knock-off Rolex and sees that it's getting close to lunch.
As we drive back to Noe Valley, I ask him how the neighborhood has changed since he first moved in. It's always been a place for families and kids, he says, but lately the strollers have gotten bigger and there are more twins. We arrive at his shop and I thank him for the visit to the Medical Center as well as the clock lessons and lore. He invites me to stop by any time I want. I'll likely take him up on it. Dorian Clair Antique Clock Repair is a fascinating place to lose a few hours. To see if your antique clock is worth the time and money to fix, stop by Antique Clock Repair on Sanchez Street in Noe Valley. To take your own, low-level tour of San Francisco’s clock towers, visit AT&T Park and Ghirardelli Square. Drive across the Bay Bridge to catch a glimpse of the Clocktower Loft’s timepiece, go to the Ferry Plaza to see the Ferry Building clock, and take a walk on Parnassus near UCSF Medical Center to see a pendulum swing and gears turn.